bob osborn

Bob Osborn feeds the vending machine inside the Calhoun County Jail a dollar to buy a snack. Photo by Stephen Gross / The Anniston Star

Like hundreds of Calhoun County residents, Wanda Chandler Champion has been part of a shadow economy where people put money into teller machines, instead of taking it out.

When a relative of Champion’s landed in Calhoun County Jail, she dutifully went downtown with a $20 bill in hand, to feed into a machine in the jail lobby.

“You’ve got to put some money on the books, so they can get some snacks,” she said.

Champion’s $20 went into the jail store, where inmates buy off-brand toaster pastries, Crunch & Munch and other small items at their own expense — or through the kindness of friends and family members.

Those gifts add up over time. According to a state audit released last month, $2.7 million went into and out of Calhoun County Jail’s store account from early 2015 to mid-2018.

That’s compared to about $8.5 million taken in and spent over the same time by the Sheriff’s Office as a whole, which runs the jail and patrols the roads of rural Calhoun County.

That’s not unusual. Audit reports from surrounding counties show that it’s pretty common for jail store accounts to make up about a third of the gross receipts for a sheriff’s office. Auditors found no problems with accounting practices in the sheriff’s office.

Sheriff Matthew Wade said that even in jail, there are the relatively poor and the relatively rich. And that’s sometimes the source of conflict.

“You’ve got your haves and your have-nots, and you’ve got a lot of people who don’t make the best decisions,” he said.

Wade said inmates can buy snacks and household items such as socks through Kimbles, a company the sheriff’s office contracted to run its jail store.

If an inmate has cash in his pocket when he’s arrested, that money goes into a jail store account – unless the money has been seized as evidence of a crime. That account also pays for their use of jail telephones.

When inmates leave, they get back the unspent portion of their money.

Wade said he doesn’t know exactly how much of that money actually gets spent in the store — but he’s quick to point out that the sheriff’s office takes in only a commission on money spent in the store. And he’s quick to say inmates aren’t buying pastries because they’re underfed.

“We give them what they need,” the sheriff said. “If there’s something extra they want, and they have it in the jail store, they can buy it.”

Alabama sheriffs have come under criticism in recent years for Alabama’s unusual system for feeding inmates. Sheriffs in many counties get a per-inmate daily amount of aid, and can pocket any money not spent on that food. Calhoun County opted out of that system years ago, and Wade said the county spends about twice the $1.75 per day per inmate spent by most jails.

Attempts to reach Kimble’s, the jail store contractor, for comment weren’t successful. Among the items available on the Georgia-based company’s website are care packages including salami, Maxwell House coffee and sweet-and-salty trail mix.

Just like on the outside, those without money need a friend, and those without either are truly poor.

“This is one way we can tell if an inmate is truly indigent,” Wade said. “If they’ve got someone sending them $100 a month, we can see that. If they’re in there for months and there’s not a cent on the books, we know.”

Some are truly rich, in jail terms. Wade said one inmate scammed his own mother into sending more than needed, and racked up an account of about $5,000.

He said another inmate, awaiting trial on a charge of conspiracy to commit murder, successfully applied for disability benefits. When the application was approved, the inmate got $20,000 in back benefits with his first check — all of which went into the jail store.

The sheriff said he sought help from lawmakers to stop the disability application, but wasn’t successful.

“You can transfer this money, so it’s probably still in his account wherever he’s in prison,” Wade said.

Not every cent winds up exactly where family members want it to go. Champion said her relative used her $20 on snack food that got snatched away by other inmates almost as soon as he got it.

“He more or less threw his hands up and said ‘let them have it,’” she said. “The question is, are you going to have a conflict that will keep you in jail longer?”

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.